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  • Writer's pictureQuinn Mason

My favorite recordings of 'Rite of Spring' (Updated)

Updated: May 28, 2020

It's no secret. Everyone who knows me personally knows how much I obsess over this work. I literally study the score everyday and find something I missed the previous hundred times I've looked at it. It's one of the pieces of music that one can listen to a million times and it'll never get old. It's definitely my favorite orchestral work of all time.

It's not only my favorite work of all time, but it's extremely important to music history. The great Leonard Bernstein is quoted as once saying, "That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...", and "'s also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name."

The legendary opening bassoon solo

So why do I love it so much?

I have a personal connection with this piece, because it was among one of the first large orchestral works from the 20th century that I studied when I was getting started with composition. In my first private composition lesson, which was way back in 2010, my first assignment was to listen to Rite and note my observations about the music. Armed with the score and Pierre's Monteux's 1951 recording, I dove in. My first impressions of the score were not that flattering; even though I was 13 years old and had some exposure to contemporary music already, I didn't immediately catch onto the unique style. I also remember getting lost in the immensely complex score several times, especially in the Sacrificial Dance.

As of now (May 2020), I've seen the Rite of Spring performed live three times (2011, 2016 and 2020), the first two times by my local Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the third time by Orchestra Seattle and friend and mentor Will White. I've also been to two rehearsals of the DSO (2011 and 2017) with the same orchestra and conductor (Jaap van Zweden) and recently gotten the chance to act as assistant conductor for this piece (with Orchestra Seattle). Seeing it actually being performed led to a greater appreciation of this masterwork. The rehearsals gave me new insight into how a complicated piece was prepared by a top flight orchestra. In the second rehearsal I attended in 2017, the (now former) principal percussionist of the DSO was nice enough to let me sit among the percussion as they played. It was an experience my ears will never forget.

An image from a Dallas Symphony rehearsal of Rite of Spring. This was the last time those timpani were seen alive.

Some context to the music (or 'A not-so-complete' history of the Rite of Spring)

The thing that always strikes me about this piece is how well it's held up over the hundred years since it was composed. The fact is that this piece is over 100 years old is still very surprising to think about. Every time one listens to it, it sounds as fresh as if it were composed a week ago. So much about this piece is ahead of its time that's almost insane to think that one man wrote all of this in the span of a year.

It was third of a string of successful and innovative ballets created for the company Ballets Russes, after L'oiseau De Feu (The Firebird) (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) was composed in 1911-1912 and was based on a fleeting vision Stravinsky had of a young maiden dancing herself to death. This occurred as he was finishing Firebird in 1910.

Something that all of three of these ballets have in common is that they are based on Russian legends and folklore. This was probably the idea of the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, who also founded the company and commissioned the ballets (from Ravel, Debussy and Satie among others). Diaghilev entrusted the creation of the scenario of the Rite of Spring to Stravinsky and his friend Nicholas Roerich, who also did the costumes and stage design. Diaghilev also told Stravinsky to use as large of an orchestra as he wanted, as the Ballets Russes was forward looking and had a lot of funding at their disposal at the time.

The ballet was premiered on May 29, 1913, with the orchestra of the Ballets Russes (consisting of players hired out from the Paris Opera and freelancers) conducted by Pierre Monteux. According to Stravinsky, the orchestra had 52 rehearsals. This was and still is a rare luxury and almost never happens today.

This is one of the most infamous events in classical music due to a riot breaking out early in the performance of the Rite and escalating to the point of the police being called in. It's almost urban legend that the music itself was so different and new that it was for sure the culprit. However, it was the jarring and angular choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and strange set design by Roerich that provoked strong responses from the audience. It's also worth noting that the Rite of Spring was the on the second half of the program that night. On the first half was music by Chopin, Weber and Borodin, all with traditional ballet dance and costumes.

The Rite is scored for an immense orchestra of quintuple winds, 8 horns (with the 7th and 8th horns doubling Wagner tubas), 5 trumpets (full range from piccolo to bass), 3 trombones, 2 tubas and a heavy battery of 2 timpanists, bass drum, tam-tam, guiro, triangle, tambourine, cymbals and crotales.

The orchestration is innovative and contains new and novel compositional devices no other composer was using at the time, although the idea of 2 timpanists was pioneered in Hector Berlioz's 1830 Symphonie Fantastique. One also sees the beginning of the use of percussion instruments as important soloists; the bass drum solo from 'Dance of the Earth' and the timpani part from 'Danse Sacrale' appear on orchestral audition lists today.

Looking at his use of the orchestra in slow quiet sections, Stravinsky tends to use the winds in chamber context with individual instruments interacting with each other:

An example of chamber scoring in the Rite of Spring

Also, take the counterpoint, which is ingenious. At any given time in the score there are multiple rhythms, keys (bitonality) even tempi happening at the same time. The climax of the first part (procession of the sage) is the perfect example of this and also features the 100 person plus strong orchestra in its full power: